Printing the Past: 3D Printing the Artifacts of MSU

Printing the Past: 3D Printing the Artifacts of MSU

As I have discussed in previous posts, my project for this year in CAP is to make 3D models of different artifacts found around campus that we have here in our collections. You may have also seen many of these on our Instagram and Twitter accounts though our ‘Artifacts of the Week’ initiative we started this year. These efforts have been done to both digitally preserve the artifacts we have, as well as make them more publicly accessible.

GIF of the Saints’ Rest pitcher 3D model.

Another new medium that I have briefly touched upon is 3D printing. CAP is lucky enough to have access to the brand new Digital Heritage Imaging and Innovation Lab (DHI Lab). This space allows students and scholars to digitize, document, preserve, and provide access to tangible heritage and material culture. Part of the LEADR (Lab for Education and Advancement in Digital Research) constellation of facilities, the DHI Lab is administered by the Department of Anthropology. It contains amazing artifact imaging resources, powerful computers to process 3D models, and a new 3D printer. These resources have become invaluable as CAP continues its push to reach a wider audience and share some of the great things we have found here on campus that allow us to reconstruct past student and faculty lives.

While digital 3D models allow us to share our findings with a larger audience, 3D printing those digital models gives a much more tangible and tactile representation of the artifact. When CAP conducts outreach and sets up booths and activities at community events, we want people to experience the artifacts that we find on campus, yet at the same time we are hesitant to have them handled too much as many of the artifacts are very old and fragile. Printing out the artifacts thus gives people an accurate representation of what we found while still preserving the artifact itself. Additionally, since the prints are made out of plastic, they can be handled and dropped without fear of breaking them. Plus, 3D prints are just cool.

Ceramic pitcher model being prepared in the 3D print software, Cura.
3D printer working on the base of the ceramic pitcher print.

As a test for this new idea, I decided to make a 3D print of an artifact where we already had the 3D model – the ceramic pitcher found during the 2005 Saints’ Rest excavations. The type of files required to make the 3D model are also compatible with the 3D printing software (I export my files as .obj – aka Wavefront object). With the Ultimaker 3D printer in the DHI Lab, I was able to upload the 3D model into the appropriate software (called Cura), adjust the settings, and begin the print. Making these prints is no quick task. Even lower quality prints can still take many hours.

Luckily, I had all the settings correct and the 3D print came out great! As I build more and more 3D models over the coming semester, I will also try to print them out with the 3D printer so that people can not only see, but touch and pick up representations of what we find on MSU’s campus. At CAP’s core are two tenets: 1) unearth and reconstruct the lives of those throughout MSU’s history, and 2) communicate our findings with the public. Having these visual aides allows us to better fulfill that second tenet and engage with the public in a more tactile manner. We will also definitely be bringing all of our prints to any outreach events that we host or participate in.

The 3D print next to the original ceramic pitcher found during the 2005 Saints’ Rest excavations.

Archaeology has routinely been a field that readily utilizes and adapts new technologies and methods to further our pursuit of knowledge of the past. In the case of 3D printing, this new method is best used when we have the public in mind so that people have a more memorable experience when they come and see us. Keep on the lookout for more models and 3D prints that will be coming out in the coming months and be sure to check out the following links to some of our other pages and accounts that will document our latest initiative: The Archaeology of MSU in 20 Artifacts.

3D models hosted on our Sketchfab account:
3D model of the ceramic pitcher:

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